The $100 role model

100 dollars Louise Brown of Clove Business Systems looks at the work of a worthy female role model, Mary Lou Jepsen.

'You ask different questions and you get different answers,' said Mary Lou Jepson, named by Time Magazine in its 2008 list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

She was talking about the radical approach needed to create the $100 laptop, the project she undertook from 2005 as chief technical officer of One Laptop Per Child.

The organisation started with the aim of producing a laptop for $100 for use by children in developing countries. The fact that half of the children don't have electricity in the home and neither do 80 per cent of the schools required a complete rethink of laptop technology. On top of this there can be extreme heat and only one internet connection in a village.

In an interview with John Ryan in December 2007 she said, 'We focused on low power consumption, no hard drive, no moving parts, built-in networking, and sunlight-readable screens.' The end product was the XO laptop which has been called the greenest laptop ever made.

Screen idol

The key to reducing both cost and power consumption was to start with looking at the display. Memory was added to the timing controller meaning that the screen can stay on while the CPU turns off.

The secret to saving power is to turn off parts of the system not in use and the AMD chipset used allows the CPU to be turned on and off in one hundredth of a second.

By keeping just two images in the memory the screen can then self-refresh and the user doesn’t notice whether the CPU is on or off because it is back up and running as soon as an event occurs which requires it.

The screen has been developed to give a high resolution black and white image in sunlight and a colour image using a backlight at night or indoors. The next item to be addressed was the hard disk. It is both high on power consumption and the second most expensive component in a laptop. It's also the most common cause of hardware failure. The answer? Don’t have one. The XO uses flash memory.

Raw power

The power supply required revisiting battery technologies to cope with temperatures of up to 57 degrees centigrade in the desert in Libya in the summer (NiMH batteries won't charge above 45 degrees C). The result was a lithium-ferro phosphate battery, chargeable at up to 60C, with a five-year life and up to 2,000 charge/recharge cycles, which could be by solar panel, hand crank, windmill or bicycle.

Using an average of 2W the XO can last for 10 hours between charges. One of the key educational aspects of the XO is the ability to network computers in a wireless mesh to facilitate a collaborative learning environment. If there is just one internet connection available the children’s laptops connect to each other with a high-bandwidth connection and, according to OLPC, 'by exploiting this connectivity, every activity has the potential to be a networked activity'.

Interfaces

Much has been said about the hardware of the XO but the Linux-based Sugar interface is also innovative. It was created working with teams from Pentagram and Red Hat and is described as a 'zoom' interface that graphically captures the world of fellow learners and teachers as collaborators, emphasising the connections within the community, among people, and their activities.

Sugar moves away from the conventional desktop metaphor of folders and files; instead, it keeps track of the various activities in which its users are engaged. Typically these activities are undertaken in collaboration with others.

Closer to home, Professor Cornelia Boldyreff of Lincoln University and James Munro, a games computing undergraduate at Lincoln, constructed a self-contained development environment enabling students to contribute to the XO software base as part of Lincoln's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Scheme (UROS) in the Collaborative Development for the XO Laptop (CODEX) project.

The primary result is the freely available CODEX LiveCD with software and tutorial support enabling any student with a PC to get involved in the numerous open source software projects associated with the XO laptop. Reporting on his project, Munro said: 'Here at the
University of Lincoln we have identified the OLPC project as a potentially excellent way of getting students involved in collaborative software development within the open-source community and as a way of allowing students to contribute to an ethical and worthwhile cause.'

Using the LiveCD, students can access the Sugar interface and its simple Python development tools and libraries for application development including the development of simple games using the Pygame library and associated game templates. As the developers of Pygame acknowledge: 'Games are an important part of learning'.

With the combination of all these innovative features the XO has now gone into mass production and there are projects under way to distribute laptops to children in many countries worldwide. Jepson has left OLPC to form her own company, Pixel Qi.

The $75 laptop

In an interview with Sean Daly at Groklaw in January 2008, she said, 'Pixel Qi is currently pursuing the $75 laptop, while also aiming to bring sunlight readable, low-cost and low-power screens into mainstream laptops, cellphones and digital cameras.'

The departure from OLPC will enable development of new markets and technologies while providing OLPC products at cost. The vision of Pixel Qi is still very much about developing systems which will enable all the world's population to join the information age.

Pixel Qi describes itself as 'a fables ASIC company that specialises in screens. The screen is just a big ASIC chip - we work closely with the large LCD factories. The trick - we use their standard processes and materials and can produce new screens with radical new performance in about a year.' The company is currently working on improving the sunlight readable screens, on low-cost integrated touch screens and paper-like screens with colour and full video speed playback.

When asked which features people would like themselves, on seeing the XO, Jepson replied, 'They want machines that are rugged, not fragile. They want long battery life - which means they need our power architecture. They want machines that are free of hazardous, toxic substances. They want better network connectivity. They want the screen - they want the screen desperately.

'It's not just kids who use laptops under the trees in Africa. It's people who want to sit in outdoor cafes with their dogs and work on their laptops and blog in rich places.'

Pixel Qi say that they plan to ship products in 2009 - better screens than in the XO in netbook and, perhaps, in mainstream laptops.

So watch this space, you may soon be able to start experiencing these new technologies for yourself.

Further reading

Lincoln University project
One Laptop Per Child
Pixel Qi

‘A Conversation with Mary Lou Jepson’, the interview with John Ryan can be found at: www.acmqueue.com/modules.php?name=Content&pa=showpage&pid=515
This gives much more technical information on the XO laptop development.

This article was first published in the January issue of ITNOW.